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9 June 2016

Commons confidential: Ground control to Major Tim

Ukip splits, Tim Peake's gagging order and sniggering at a Downing Street spinner.

By Kevin Maguire

I hear of another split at the top of Ukip after this month’s referendum, win or lose. The issue this time is ermine with purple trim on a handful of 40 extra peers to be packed into a House of Cronies already groaning with 790 unelected lawmakers. The whisper from the Cabinet Office is that it will be the MP Douglas Carswell, as Ukip leader of a party of one in the Commons, rather than the marauding Nigel Farage, who will nominate the party’s posse. With Carswell and Farage at daggers drawn, my snout chortled that we may see another Ukipper who fell out with Nasty Nige, Suzanne Evans, made a baroness but no Baron Farage of Brussels.

Tim Peake is gagged! The European Space Agency has ruled that the British astronaut orbiting Earth in the International Space Station must remain above the referendum debate. The mission is scientific evidence that collaboration and pushing back frontiers work. But in a letter to the Lib Dem space cadet Tim Farron, the ESA ruled that Peake, as a civil servant, must not speak out on a political issue. The letter added that Peake has previously “emphasised the importance of close co-operation among states”, which Stayers interpret as a Remain hint. The good news for the Lib Dem Tim is Major Tim returns to ground control on 18 June, so he’ll be back five days before the vote. Royal Mail doesn’t collect postal votes 2oo miles up.

The jostling to be Mersey metro mayor resulted in sharp elbows at a Liverpool Labour soirée to fund an art project commemorating the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth. The party’s three wannabes – Joe Anderson, Steve Rotheram and Luciana Berger – were on manoeuvres. Anderson made clear that he expected, as Liverpool city’s elected mayor, to be part of the proceedings, so was invited to draw the raffle. First out of the hat was Berger, a result Anderson surely hopes isn’t repeated next May.

Woodcraft Folk hippie scouts taking a stand at the GMB’s Bournemouth conference were an outward sign that the allotment holder Jeremy Corbyn’s grass-roots revolution flourishes in the unions. Labour’s leader got an ovation but all is not well as he struggles to grow in the post. Nervous officials pleaded beforehand for disgruntled activists not to heckle Corbyn.

The Downing Street spinner Craig Oliver is accused of standing on his dignity when he visits the Britain Stronger In Europe HQ. Everybody else uses a Stronger In email address, so the No 10 handle of the campaign’s Alan Partridge causes much status sniggering.

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Remainers hid a green BMW Mini when Natalie Bennett refused to stand alongside Cameron’s blue, Harman’s red and Farron’s orange cars. Going nowhere fast, Nat wanted a bicycle.

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe